The pay sucks in Community Services

When I graduate, I can expect to earn $16 an hour (Vic Award).

I am studying a Diploma of Community Services Work (formerly the Diploma of Welfare Work), and everywhere I go, people who work in the field tell me the pay sucks.

“We don’t do it for the money”. Crap pay seems to be the defining attribute of the Social and Community Services (SACS) sector.

SACS are outsourced government services. Small non-government organisations tender for grants, to provide everything from foster care to drug and alcohol support.

If you’re poor, odds are you or your family have received or will receive support from the Social and Community Services sector.

The people who work in the field are tertiary educated (well, we hope). They are in positions of immense importance for the lives of the people they work with. As a society we entrust them with the task of addressing the needs of societies most vulnerable people.

And they’re paid peanuts.

You are honestly better off pursuing a “career” in retail than training to enter the SACS sector.

And most of the people in the field, are planning to leave.

80% of SACS workers are female. The low pay might Ville have something to do with this. SACS work is considered “womans work”, and the work of women is underpaid and undervalued in this misogynistic society.

That’s certainly what the Australia Services Union is campaigning on.

But I think the problem is more fundamental. The entire field is organised in order to maximize the exploitation of workers.

The trend towards government outsourcing over the past twenty years has given birth to modern the SACS sector. The argument embraced by government was that the private and NGO sector was more efficient than government. Greater results could be achieved for less cost, if the government “steered” funding towards the most competitive programs rather than engaging in direct service provision.

And it worked. The NGO sector “services” more people for less money.

NGOs engage in competitive tendering, competing for government grants to provide programs and services. They promise to help more people for less dollars.

And they do this by paying workers less.

When I speak to workers in the SACS field and ask about the pay, many see it as a fact of life. They work for non-profits, these non-profits rely on government funding, and the government never provides enough funding.

Dare I suggest it is because of the tendering process?

SACS workers seem loath to contemplate industrial action. If they achieved higher wages, fewer people would be helped, and what can their little organisation do to pay them more wages?

Everything about the organisation of SACS work undermines the pay of SACS workers.

1. Workers try and do more with less, help all the people they can, see more people than they are funded for, and worker longer than they are paid. They are trapped by their caring.

2. Organisations capitalize on this “efficiency” in the tendering process. If workers are making do with less, they can lower their bids. Their concern is securing the next round of funding, and that means bidding less than everyone else in the field.

3. The government sits back and reaps the rewards of all this “efficiency”. More people are being serviced (on paper) for less than ever before.

And the end result?

a. Most SACS workers are preparing their exit plan.
b. The skill level of the field lowers as organisations seek to fill low paid positions.
c. The service quality falls as workers are pushed to see more clients in less time for less money.

So the questions has to be asked, why the hell am I studying to enter this field? Well, I can only repeat the despondent words of everyone else I meet in the field, it’s not for the money…

What’s the solution? I don’t think it’s sending a few kisses to Julia Gillard as the ASU proposes. Only industry wide industrial action will send the kind of message that will have to be taken seriously.

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